BOOK REVIEW: Classic Literature Meets Modern Teen Drama In ‘By The Book’
BY ALETHEA KONTIS
Before I begin this review in earnest, I would first like to bestow upon Miss Amanda Sellet several Bonus Points for the most puntastic title of 2020 (Get it? “BUY the Book”). And then I shall implore you, Dear Reader, to brew a cup of your favorite tea and settle in while I tell you the tale of this most intriguing and delightful tome about the misadventures of a teen who grew up steeped in classic literature — and little else.
Our story begins as 15-year-old bookworm Mary Porter-Malcolm’s life is about to change. The exclusive school for professors’ children she previously attended has lost its funding, so she must transfer to Millville High (the local public school) for her sophomore year. Mary is apprehensive, but ready to embark upon this adventure, as her headstrong sisters — and the beloved heroines of all her favorite classic novels — have done before her.
As the fourth of five genius children, Mary’s home life is tumultuous enough. She wishes only for a simple life with interesting companions, so that she might cast them all in a literary journey of her own making. Her wish is granted on the first day of school, as her best-and-only friend dumps her shortly before she meets the Crimson Contessa, the Beauty, and Madam CEO (aka Arden, Lydia, and Terry). Mary warns the trio against the curly-haired, blue-eyed lothario Alex Ritter, a heartbreaking Vronsky-type whose earlier flirtation with the Beauty will undoubtedly lead to disastrous ruin that may or may not involve a train.
The girls are absolutely enchanted by Mary. She’s terribly wise in the ways of relationships, yet new to the halls of MHS, so they vow to give her a “season,” launching her into the average high school experience like a debutante on the marriage mart. Meanwhile, they watch scenes of daily teenage life and relationships play out around them and listen as Mary draws not-quite-exact parallels to complex male characters in classic novels. They even design a quiz for others to hunt down their own relationship material, based on fictional archetypes!
Mary’s naive hyper-intelligence is a fascinating perspective, illustrating not only how life imitates art (and vice versa), but also how life never really stops being like high school in so many ways. She is, as she wishes so deeply, the heroine of her own book. But she does reach a point at which she must admit her ignorance and turn to someone with a little more life experience in these matters: Alex Ritter.
She’s bold enough to ask Alex for romantic advice, but still too oblivious to realize his actual feelings for her. The more time Mary spends with him, the better we all get to know Alex as a person, without the shade of Vronsky hanging over his head. In real life, Alex is a just a normal human boy with normal human frailties, sisters of his own, and a massive crush. Alex and Mary slowly grow closer, in secret. We don’t mind at all when things heat up between them at the dance — but Mary’s friends discover them, everything instantly falls to pieces.
Perhaps she jumped to her judgment of Alex too quickly, based on too little knowledge? How very Austen of her. Mary realizes she must find a way to communicate her feelings if she wants to repair any of this. She must go a step beyond her beloved heroines, take herself out of her books (and out of her own head), and act — advice that all of us need to take now and again.
High school closely mirrors high society in Sellet’s story, but book knowledge alone is not enough to see Mary through. Intellectual children of intellectuals still need to learn some “street smarts” to achieve a truly well-rounded education.
I loved every minute of this story, from the dollar-a-word vocabulary (Jejune! Forwent! Insouciance!) to Mary’s dramatic introduction to Nicholas Sparks. Amid the brief diary entries and opulent prose, Sellet manages to hide a clever and biting social commentary in Mary’s point of view. One doesn’t need intimate familiarity with the classics to enjoy By the Book, but the more you know, the more you’ll laugh. I, for one, cackled out loud!
Alethea Kontis is a voice actress and award-winning author of over 20 books for children and teens.